What’s Biden’s real China policy? Unlike Trump, he’s done a 180
No candidate wants to run against his own record, but President Trump’s China policy is forcing Democratic challenger Joe Biden to do just that.
For eight years as vice president and decades longer while in the Senate, Biden and his team failed to confront China. Biden was more responsible than any other legislator of the post-Nixon era for enabling China’s rise as a revisionist superpower. But now that he’s running against Trump, Biden is trying to perform an unconvincing about-face on the foreign adversary in which he’s invested so much.
Biden’s support of the Chinese Communist Party is long and personal. In 2000-2001, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden led the Senate’s efforts to shepherd China into the World Trade Organization and to end annual congressional reviews of China’s status as a U.S. trading partner. At the time, Biden welcomed China’s emergence “as a great power, because great powers adhere to international norms in the areas of nonproliferation, human rights and trade.” As vice president in 2011, Biden said he believed “that a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
The benefits of embracing China were not merely diplomatic. Biden’s son, Hunter, may have benefited financially from his father’s cultivation of Beijing.
The younger Biden found his way into acquiring a stake in a billion-dollar private equity fund partly owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise and funded by Chinese state-owned venture capital. Among the firm’s investments was Face++, a Chinese surveillance firm. Hunter Biden began building investments and business deals in China based on his proximity to Chinese government and business figures in 2010, two years after his father was elected vice president. A new report from the Senate Finance and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees’ majority staffs further details Hunter Biden’s business ties with Chinese nationals linked to the Chinese government and military.
Even out of office — and as recently as last year — there was no indication Joe Biden thought any of this might be a problem for his presidential candidacy.
His foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been storming the panels of think tanks and the pages of establishment magazines to argue that the rise of Chinese hard power is the “the natural outcome of a positive-sum mindset,” that “China’s extraordinary development was the result not of failures in U.S. foreign policy but of its successes,” and that the U.S. should do “everything we can to both facilitate and encourage China’s rise and to support it.” As one of Biden’s presumptive foreign policy or national security chiefs, Sullivan has also argued strongly against the containment of Chinese power and that “the United States and China should be working together to expand the areas where we can cooperate on the major global challenges of our time – on proliferation, on climate change, on the global economy, and on so much else.”
But what a difference a year can make. Now, with the Democratic nomination in hand and only five weeks until the general election, Biden is not only trying to repudiate his own past record on China, he is trying to out-hawk Trump.
Biden has sought to convince Americans that Trump has not been hard enough on China, and that a Biden administration would be tougher still — on trade, on military aggression, on intellectual property theft, technology transfers and economic bullying. Biden’s performance has been so unconvincing that even the New York Times described him as “under political pressure to look tough.” Meanwhile, as the Times reported, “Some Asian-Americans have criticized [Biden’s] anti-China advertisements as racist. And progressive critics of American power say Mr. Biden is perpetuating misguided ideas of U.S. superiority.”
The reason for Biden’s apparent reversal on China is not a big mystery. A July poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China, the highest in 15 years, and more than half of Americans see China as a competitor. Unable to run on his own past record, Biden is trying to execute an awkward 180-degree turn, captured nicely by a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “What’s Biden’s New China Policy? It Looks a Lot Like Trump’s.”
If Biden was as honest as his adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been about what U.S. China policy would look like under his administration, the American people would be faced with a clearer choice between two alternatives. As things stand, voters instead face the following option with regard to U.S. competition with China: Trump, or someone promising to imitate Trump.
Richard Grenell is a senior fellow of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy. He is a senior adviser on LGBT outreach to the Republican National Committee. He served more than 10 years in the U.S. Department of State, including as U.S. ambassador to Germany, 2018-2020, and as a spokesman at the United Nations, and served briefly as acting director of national intelligence (DNI).
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